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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Little Good Will for Petersburg in Games

ST. PETERSBURG -- The 1994 Goodwill Games will be remembered as the sporting event where they couldn't make ice, couldn't strain the scum out of the pool, bored the audiences and lost millions of dollars.


The St. Petersburg games, despite big names like U.S. sprinter Carl Lewis and Ukrainian pole-vaulter Sergei Bubka as well as Olympic medalists in figure skating, swimming and gymnastics, attracted little interest among sports fans in Russia or abroad. Stadiums were sparsely attended, and U.S. television ratings so far are the worst of any of the three Goodwill Games.


On top of that, the poor organization of the games, resulting in brackish water delaying the swimming events for a day and a one-day postponement of the figure skating because of inadequate ice, have been a black eye to Russia's Second City.


Sports Illustrated, the largest U.S. sports magazine, reported that members of the American swimming team took home bottles of pool water as souvenirs.


New York's Newsday newspaper described as "comic timing" a statement by the Russian Olympic Committee vice president Alexander Kozlovsky that the committee was "totally satisfied" with the conduct of the games. Speaking after the figure skating postponement, he added that St. Petersburg was "very serious" about bidding for the 2004 Olympic Games.


Ted Turner, the American television network owner who founded the event, has taken another financial bath, with estimated losses of about $26 million, according to Jack Kelly, president of the games. That means Turner has lost upwards of $100 million in the three Goodwill Games.


Adding insult to financial loss, Russian coaches -- famous for their brutal honesty -- have been downright scornful of the games.


Russian basketball coach Sergei Belov, whose team lost to the United States in the bronze medal round, said he was ambivalent about playing at all in the Goodwill Games because they came so close to the World Basketball Championship in Toronto, which started Thursday.


Vadim Zelichenok, coach of the Russian track and field team, went even further. Zelichenok said he had instructed his athletes to conserve their strength for a European track and field championship, thus explaining why Russia won only 10 gold medals to 18 for the United States.


Supporting that philosophy, Bubka and Algeria's distance runner Nourredine Morceli set world records in western Europe in events where they receive rewards based on performance less than a week after lesser games performances.


And then there was the pool. Far more than Petya -- the mustachioed cat who is the official mascot of the St. Petersburg Games -- the SKA pool, with its Neva River-colored water and inch of sediment on the bottom, has come to symbolize the games.


"'Murky Water,' 'Swampy Water,' 'Swimming in Gatorade,' 'Russia Plays Dirty Pool' -- these are the sort of headlines we're seeing,'' said Kelly.


Then, just when the organizers hoped that problem was behind them, a new disaster arose with the iceless figure skating competition. The skating had to be postponed a day because the ice at the Yubileiny Sports Palace was not forming quickly enough, leaving Russian and American organizers screamed at each other in frustration.


The rescheduling of figure skating -- a traditional draw in televised international competitions -- was a cruel blow to the organizers who had been counting on it to revive the low television ratings for the games.


But it may already be too late. The games have dropped out of many American viewers' plans. U.S. teams, notably the basketball squad, have turned in poor performances and have left fans cold.


Nor does the unimpressive local attendance help. "You turn on the television and see an empty stadium and think, 'Why watch this,' and you change the channel," said one American television journalist.


Even though Kelly said almost 500,000 of the 700,000 seats available had been sold, the events often look to be poorly attended.


Many St. Petersburgers, enticed by two weeks of beautiful weather, have fled the city -- and the oppressive security, which has closed off roads and buildings and put a GAI officer on every corner -- for the dacha.


"If you didn't know St. Petersburg had the Goodwill Games, you might think it had cholera," noted Argumenty i Fakti, commenting on the city's ghost-town feel.


Ticket prices ranging from 7,000 to 150,000 rubles ($3.50 to $75) have kept many Russians from attending. The prices have dropped drastically since -- some events are even free now -- but few Petersburgers are aware of that.


Turner was praised for starting the Goodwill Games in 1986 after consecutive U.S. and Soviet boycotts of the 1980 and 1984 Olympics. But with the end of the Cold War, critics have called the games irrelevant and have attacked Turner for continuing them.


Yet organizers say the games -- scheduled for New York in 1998 -- will go on. New York Governor Mario Cuomo will attend the closing ceremony Sunday.